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Theatre in Review: Everybody (Signature Theatre)

Brooke Bloom, Marylouise Burke. Photo: Monique Carboni.

It's especially fun to attend a new Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play, because you can never tell where he's headed next. In the past few seasons, he has deconstructed the racial assumptions in a vintage Dion Boucicault melodrama (An Octoroon), reconfigured the typical American domestic drama by placing it against the background of a ruined plantation (Appropriate), and penned a breathtakingly black-hearted comedy about workplace violence and its self-aggrandizing survivors (Gloria). Now, in what may be the greatest out-of-left-field entry of the season, he offers his take on the famous Tudor-era morality play Everyman.

Everybody -- retitled for the age of gender non-discrimination -- is one of those plays that many have heard of and very few have ever seen in a theatre. Its most contemporary incarnation is as Jedermann, a German adaptation, by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, written in 1911 and now seen annually at the Salzburg Festival in Austria. In most versions, the title character has been summoned by Death to offer an accounting of his life before facing God; terrified, he tries to find a companion -- among a variety of allegorical figures - to join him on this momentous journey; in the end, he is left before God accompanied only by Good Deeds.

The first surprise is how Jacobs-Jenkins approaches the material so playfully, in such good humor, without being in any way derisive of it. The play gets off to a rollicking start with Jocelyn Bioh, who, appearing in three separate roles, is the production's secret weapon. She first appears as an usher who good-naturedly bullies the audience, asking us to turn off our cell phones, then adding, "I'm going to wait until I'm convinced" that everyone has complied. She then offers a brief, witty history of Everyman, and clueing us in to the play's allegorical nature, adds, "Some people in this play are not going to play people."

Bioh illustrates this proposition by morphing into God Herself, offering a tirade against sinful humanity, and ushering in Death, played, in a stroke of casting genius, by Marylouise Burke. The actress' trademark comic personality is put to excellent use, allowing her to present Death as a kind of harassed office manager. When the idea of God asking one to face the sum total of one's life's actions is presented, she comments, "I think it's for internal purposes." When asked to prove that she is, in fact, Death, she pauses, for the tiniest beat, and adds, "Now see, I'm never really sure how to answer that." As long as Burke is around, the presence of Death is most welcome, as far as I'm concerned.

The surprises continue, as what appear to be several audience members are brought into conversation with Death; in fact, they are members of the cast, who soon take the stage: Brooke Bloom, Michael Braun, Louis Cancelmi, David Patrick Kelly, and Lakisha Michelle May. In the play's most inventive twist, a hopper filled with lottery balls is rolled out onstage, and the roles of Everybody and the characters he/she will meet on the road to God are assigned by chance. (Yes, this means that these actors must memorize most of the script; it also means that there are 120 possible combinations of roles.) At the performance I attended, Kelly took on the title role.

From there, the action more or less follows the original in streamlined fashion -- there are many fewer characters -- with the author's modern comic sensibility seamlessly entwined in the play's contemplation of life's meaning. Friendship (played by Cancelmi) starts off in a reminiscent mood ("Remember that time we sort of hooked up? That was weird, right?"), and quickly pledges fealty, adding, "I would literally go to hell and back for you," until he discovers that this is exactly what Everybody wants. The character known as Stuff appears in a gold outfit to comment on capitalism, fretting that "I apparently just like...destroy humans," before making a memorable exit via motorcycle. Only Love, here standing in for Good Deeds in the earlier versions, and outfitted with a backpack, is willing to make the journey with Everybody, but even Love insists on exacting a price.

There's much more, including some insinuating monologues heard on the sound system; the appearance of various virtues -- including Strength, Mind, Beauty, and Understanding (the latter played by Bioh at all performances) -- all of whom desert Everybody at the edge of the grave; and an eerie sound-and-light show complete with impressive puppets made to look like dancing skeletons. It's fascinating to see the author, whose previous works were known for their serrated edges, adopt a more contemplative mood here. Even shorn of its Roman Catholic theology, Everybody sends a message we all need to hear, especially in these fraught times: What are you expending your life on? Does it really mean something? If not, why are you doing it? Life is a fleeting, evanescent thing; when you look back at it, what will you see? These are weighty matters, indeed, yet there is nothing preachy or sententious about the text or Lila Neugebauer's delightful production.

Clearly, Neugebauer's cast is up for anything, and, at the performance I attended, one would think each performer had been playing his or her assigned role for weeks. (Chris Perfetti, who plays Love at each performance, gives the character an intriguingly imperious edge, especially when he commands Everybody to run around the auditorium, declaiming his many faults.) The production design appears almost bare-bones at first, but there are plenty of surprises in store. Laura Jellinek's set at first features a row of theatre seats backed by a wall that mimics the sidewalls of the Irene Diamond Stage, but it undergoes a remarkable transformation -- not to be described here -- late in the play. Matt Frey's lighting uses house lights, tightly focused looks, and slow fade-ups, and presents a dazzling kinetic display near the climax. Gabriel Berry's fine costumes include an amusing white jumper/pantsuit combination for Burke. Brandon Wolcott's sound design includes a number of monologues and dialogues heard on the sound system, delivered in whispery fashion, giving them an insinuating, dreamlike effect.

Throughout, Jacobs-Jenkins achieves a remarkable double vision, finding all sorts of reasons for laughter without scanting the power of the original, which still pretty much sums up the truth of our existence: The closer we get to the ends of our lives, the more we shed the things that once seemed important, leaving us with -- what? -- David Barbour

(28 February 2017)

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